How to Read Food Labels
There’s so many claims and confusing messages on our foods – but here’s a great rule of thumb when it comes to reading food labels – If the health claim on the packaging says it’s amazing, there’s a good chance it’s not!
Food manufacturers care about selling their product, they don’t care about your health. They’re also tricky little buggers and have found the sneakiest ways of getting us to think that something’s good for you, when in fact, it couldn’t be further than the truth.
Making healthier choices is the goal, but it’s not always as easy as it seems. Especially when it comes to food labels. Food labels can look a little complicated at first glance, but by reading on you’ll get a clear idea of what’s in a label and what it all means.
The purpose of Nutrition Information Panel is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right? Well not really…food manufacturers have ways of manipulating that too!
Food labels are included on all food products, except for very small packets and fresh foods, such as fruit and vegetables and local bakery or organic products.
Whether you like the Nutrition Information Panel or not (you may have guessed I’m not a fan) it’s not going away, and neither are packaged foods, so I want you to know what you’re looking at.
Here’s my six step crash course on reading Food Labels and the Nutrition Information Panel.
1. Read the ingredients List
ALWAYS read the ingredients.
My golden rule, before you even look at the Nutrition Information Panel is to READ THE INGREDIENTS.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. When an ingredient is listed near the start of the list, then the food contains more of this ingredient than others down the list.
If you recognise the ingredients as food, then it is food.
If it sounds like a science experiment, then it’s a chemical shit storm and it’s not food. Put it back and find some real food. Really, I’m serious.
2. Check the Serving Size
This is where manufacturers can get a little sneaky. The serving size is strategically chosen to make the rest of the nutrition panel table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
Serving sizes are also typically much smaller than people would actually eat in a sitting. Who’s going to count out 11 corn chips or weigh 25gms of breakfast cereal???
Doritos: In a 330gm bag there are 12.2 servings per package. The serving size is 27g, which is about 11 chips.
This is where the per 100gm comes in which makes it easier to compare different foods.
Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving.
You may be surprised at how small it is.
Imagine a ¼ cup of nuts or actually only having 100mls of wine…
3. Percentage of Ingredients
Are you actually getting what you think you’re buying?
Food labels must show the percentage of the key foods listed or featured on the packet.
The marketing will sell you on the fancy labelling or claims of perceived healthy ingredients…where in fact the actual product may not contain much of this at all.
For example, Carman’s “Super Berry” Muesli has a measly 2% cranberries, 1% goji berries and 1% blueberries so only 4% actual berries… That’s not that Super!
Whole Grain Oats 59%, Fruit 10% (Berries [Cranberries 2%, Goji Berries 1%, Blueberries 1%], Currants, Coconut 2%), Nuts 9% (Almonds, Pecans), Seeds 9% (Sunflower Seeds, Sesame Seeds, Pepitas 1%), Golden Syrup, Sunflower Oil, Cinnamon.
4. Watch for Hidden Ingredients
Products that claim “no added sugar” on the package are a great example.
Manufacturers can claim this if there is no added table sugar.
As for the over 200 OTHER FORMS OF SUGAR, then they can go for it and rot your teeth before you can blink…well not quite but you know what I mean!
No matter what the form, your body recognises sugar as sugar. So don’t kid yourself into thinking your “sugar free” raw dessert filled with maple syrup, rice malt syrup and coconut sugar is any better for you. It all invokes an insulin response and a blood sugar spike. I’m not saying don’t have it (and they are delicious!) but recognise that a sweet treat is still a sweet treat.
Sugar may appear on the ingredients list as any of the following: Sucrose, Maltose, Dextrose, Fructose, Glucose, Galactose, and Lactose, Glucose solids.
Watch out for anything ending in -ose, syrup, juice, malt, crystal – they are all forms of sugar.
5. Nutrition Information Panel
Let’s stick with the Super Berry Muesli.
Energy and Calories are pretty straight forward – provided you stick to the serving size you know what you are eating.
Servings per package: 11 Serving size: 45g
|Average Quantity per Serving||Average Quantity per 100g|
Ideally if we are going to eat packaged food (and hey, no one is perfect!) we should be looking for foods, per serve not per packet, that have:
Sugar – less than 10g per serve
Fat – avoid all trans fats
Sodium – 140g or less
Fibre – 5gm or more
Nutri Grain (pictured) clearly fails all of these recommendations…yet gets a 4 Star Health Rating…so ignore the marketing claims on the packet too!
6. Bottom of the table (e.g. added vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed on a nutritional panel or ingredients list are those that the manufacturer has added in. Often you will see iodine, folic acid, B Vitamins and these are little more than a token effort to make an otherwise nutrient devoid food look more nourishing.
Nutri Grain is a great example. We best absorb nutrients directly from the foods where they are naturally found, so the token gesture of adding in a sprinkle of nutrients to “fortify” a load of sugar will really not make the Nutri Grain more nutritious!
I hope this crash course in reading food labels was helpful. While it’s handy to know what all of this means, you can really take it or leave it after you’ve read the ingredients list.
If you think of the calories and fat profile that may be in an avocado, it has a similar calorie and fat density to a bag of chips. While the numbers may appear similar (OK the avo won’t have a nutrition panel because it’s a whole food but you know where I’m headed with this) the nutrient benefits in terms of naturally occurring fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals will always be a far more nutritious choice than the chips.
Super Quick and Healthy Snack
4 walnut halves / pecans / Brazil nuts / 1 tsp nut butter
2 Medjool dates, pitted
Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing a nut or nut butter into each date.
Serve & enjoy!